The Pacific Institute: We must mainstream biodiversity planning and upscale this across every landscape, watershed, country, and ocean

The Pacific Institute is on a mission to create and advance solutions to the world’s most pressing water challenges with a long-term strategic goal to catalyse the transformation to water resilience in the face of climate change by 2030. Its lead architects explain why a robust -- and implemented -- agreement on nature at COP15, will catalyse their work. By The Water Resilience Coalition | December 19, 2022

Biodiversity and healthy ecosystems underpin almost every element of our social and economic systems. These ecosystems and the biodiversity housed within them provide us with fresh air, clean water, and the food, fuel, and fibre we need to survive and thrive. Biodiversity is a key element of functioning systems and without each species playing its specialized role or if ecosystem processes are not maintained, we cannot build resilient communities or economies. Resilience depends on these systems to function optimally, especially in times of uncertainty.

The Pacific Institute’s mission is to create and advance solutions to the world’s most pressing water challenges with a long-term strategic goal to catalyse the transformation to water resilience in the face of climate change by 2030. This goal focuses on social, economic, and ecological systems to ensure a holistic approach to resilience building. Our partnership with the CEO Water Mandate and Water Resilience Coalition helps us address a multitude of challenges, with the support of the private sector, NGO partners, and others who have joined us in our quest to achieve positive change in watersheds around the world.

Embedding resilience across operations

We need to look at how nature is embedded in our operations, supply chains, and everyday lives. We should understand the values of nature (social, economic, cultural, institutional) and consider these values using different worldviews. Too many take the ecosystem goods and services provided by nature for granted, and only when there is a major environmental catastrophe, do we truly appreciate the role nature plays. We, therefore, need to explore ways to restore, manage, and protect nature in ways that put nature at the centre of all systems. This may require adding ecosystem services, landscapes, and other natural elements on asset registers; undertaking assessments to determine the true value of nature; and determining what the real cost of not restoring, managing, or protecting nature looks like.

The Pacific Institute, CEO Water Mandate, and Water Resilience Coalition support multiple intervention types (restoration, management, protection and creation) across priority watersheds around the world. We support our private-sector partners, utilities and municipalities, NGOs, research institutions and others to understand the role water plays in the landscape and the connections water has with social, economic and environmental systems. Our NBS Benefits Explorer tool helps organizations identify the benefits that can accrue from investments in NBS. By the end of Q1 2023, this tool will help organizations identify, account for, and value the benefits from investing in nature. This will help build the business case for green investments, and help drive catalytic change globally.

Although resilience in practice is fairly nascent, we are seeing more private and public sector organizations adopt policies and programs to embed resilience across their operations. The 100 Resilience Cities program supports some municipalities in developing resilience across key priority areas. The CEO Water Mandate and Pacific Institute, in partnership with the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, World Resources Institute, and the International Water Management Institute have developed the Water Resilience Assessment Framework, which helps organizations assess their state of resilience across multiple scales. This framework has been adapted for the corporate sector, to help companies build long-term economic water resilience. Further guidance for utilities and basin planners and managers is planned for early 2023 and will help drive resilience building at scale.

Restoration, management, and protection of ecosystems are often at the heart of resilience approaches, especially when considering the biophysical components of a system. Many companies are making significant progress in addressing water-related challenges in the watershed. Members of the Water Resilience Coalition are leading the charge here, in partnership with many of the world’s leading conservation NGOs.

We cannot, and should not, look past the way climate change is affecting nature

People have compartmentalized our way of thinking for hundreds of years. An example is the way government agencies are siloed in their approaches and mandates. Perhaps this delineation makes it easier to assign resources, tackle problems, or understand the magnitude of individual challenges. A major issue with this approach is that we potentially discount or ignore the interconnections between systems. We cannot, and should not, look past the way climate change is affecting nature. We also need to recognize the role that nature plays in adapting and mitigating the effects of climate change.  Understanding the nexus between climate, nature, and water is paramount to addressing the multitude of challenges we face today!

However, a benefit to having separate events is that we can prioritize certain agendas across these different campaigns. Biodiversity always seems to take a back seat to other challenges. By giving it its own space, we ensure that the proper attention is given to the pressing issues we are facing. The ideal shift would be that centering an event on biodiversity would not prevent other connected issues from being addressed. It should be an opportunity to strengthen the understanding of the interconnections to other impacts through the biodiversity lens.

We cannot ignore the warning messages anymore

We’ve been saying that we’re at a tipping point for decades. Most people (including state actors and NSAs) don’t even know what this means or the ramifications of exceeding the point of no return. This is supported by numerous academic papers (Novacek, 2008; Sharman & Mlambo, 2012; Halkos & Matsiori, 2022) and in countless op eds, thought pieces and popular articles. Even the current Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, acknowledged at the opening of COP15 that we’re falling short of knowing what the hell to do. He even went so far as to say that we’re “treating nature like a toilet”. No words were minced!

If we lose even a few of the key processes and functions that nature provides, or even a few keystone species, humanity will pay far more (economically, socially, and politically) to provide these services through engineered means, than from just spending the time and money on environmental restoration, management, and protection.

We’re all heard about the global decline in bee populations. But what about our frogs and other amphibians? In the last few decades, we’ve seen almost 200 species go extinct. Almost 2500 species have severely declining populations. That’s over one third of all amphibian species. Habitat specialists and biodiversity experts call amphibians “the canaries of the ecosystems” as they’re indicators of ecosystem health. If we see so many on the decline, what does that say about the state of play for ecosystems around the world? Other declines in aquatic species have been seen in fish, freshwater shellfish and crustaceans, and even the creepy crawlies we pretend aren’t there when we dip our feet into ponds and rivers.

Aquatic biodiversity globally is in serious threat! We cannot ignore the warning messages anymore. We must mainstream biodiversity planning and upscale this across every landscape, watershed, country, and ocean. We cannot survive as a species if we continue the current trajectory. It may not be a quick demise, but it’ll be a slow, painful one!

Engaging a broad range of stakeholders, particularly local communities and Indigenous Peoples

Nature-based solutions put nature at the centre of all solutions. These activities consider the stacked benefits across water, carbon/climate, biodiversity, and socio-economic themes. This allows investors to address multiple challenges at once, yield maximum benefits over space and time, and improve the conditions in landscapes around the world. The NBS Benefits Explorer tool helps organizations identify and account for NBS benefits. The second version of the tool (to be released in Q1 of 2023) will also allow for users to see benefit values through a social return on investment estimate and forecast benefit accrual over different spatial and temporal scales. The Benefit Accounting of Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds project that I lead is further refining the tool to bring in spatial elements to allow see where NBS will be most catalytic/impactful in certain geographies. This will allow for strategic investments in key watersheds/landscapes and will help address multiple challenges in those locations.

One of the best ways to ensure the success of any NBS project is to engage a broad range of stakeholders, particularly local communities and Indigenous Peoples. The Pacific Institute and CEO Water Mandate have recently released NBS stakeholder engagement guidelines to support investors and practitioners engage stakeholders inclusively and equitably.

We need messaging that drives the point of biodiversity loss home

Sadly, most of the messages we receive about biodiversity and environmental decline are not taken up by the mainstream media or shared in ways that we can easily understand the science. In some cases, people are desensitized to the constant bad news and don’t really take the dire warnings to heart anymore or see this as fear-mongering. Some people comment that their actions won’t have an impact, or that the job of protecting nature falls to the government.

Few realize what a global biodiversity tipping point really means. We hear of a rhino going extinct here, or a river dolphin going extinct there. This means very little to them. But these species play critical roles in ecosystems, and without them, the ecosystems in which these species lived for thousands if not millions of years are now out of equilibrium.

We all have a part to play. We need messaging that drives the point of biodiversity loss home. We need to show what this means to the average person. We need environmental heavyweights, like Sir David Attenborough, Dr. Jane Goodall, and other Champions of the Earth, to keep banging the drum of hope. We need to listen to and learn from Indigenous Peoples as they have a track record of positive relationships with Nature stretching back thousands of years. And we need to get out into nature and see how the world works.

Ensuring an integrated approach to the climate crisis

Firstly, we need to recognize that we are already in a climate crisis. We are seeing an increase in the severity, frequency, and probability of extreme weather events. These events and other anthropogenic impacts are exacerbating societal and environmental challenges to the point where our current approaches to adaptation and mitigation may not be enough.

Second, we need to view mitigation and adaptation together to offer a pathway to identify common objectives and goals so that resources are allocated more efficiently and can achieve more effective outcomes.

Third, we need to work collectively to solve shared challenges, across multiple scales and agendas. Joining initiatives that drive catalytic change, like the CEO Water Mandate or Water Resilience Coalition, helps bring some of the key decision-makers around the table. Collaborating across the watershed scale can help address many challenges faced by the climate crisis.

The significance of an ambitious international agreement on the protection of nature

The companies supported through the CEO Water Mandate, Water Resilience Coalition, and through Pacific Institute-led projects are already thinking, speaking, and acting on biodiversity. They are developing policies and programs that foreground nature. They see the impacts they are having on the environment, and that they cannot continue along the same path. They’re investing in replenishment and restoration projects. They’re joining forces and engaging a broad range of stakeholders to help drive collective action. An ambitious international agreement that enables collective action and accelerated scaling of solutions could give a boost to collaboration towards achieving our shared goals, as expressed by the SDGs and other commitments, by 2030.

Our members are only one puzzle piece in a much larger jigsaw. We need to ensure that all organizations work collaboratively to address the “biodiversity elephant in the room”. We need to move quicker, make more money available for conservation, and ultimately stop the unsustainable practices that are harming ecosystems and biodiversity.

WRC has a collective goal to positively impact over 100 water-stressed basins globally and to enable equitable access and sanitation to over 100 million people. Suitable for any company.

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Race to Resilience

Revitalizing landscapes damaged by intensive agriculture in Brazil’s Paraná State

Race to Resilience partner Initiative 20×20 is working with MIROVA and the SLB Group in Brazil to restore degraded land caused by intensive agriculture in Paraná. This project seeks to rejuvenate 1,400 hectares previously used for intensive farming practices by implementing innovative forestry methods that promise greater biodiversity and environmental sustainability.